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Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

AAJ Staff By

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BH: OK. I do On The Corner. [Steve] Grossman was the saxophonist. Miles used to have family spats with these guys. And as mean or strong as Miles seemed to be, he was soft in some areas because the guys would get fed up with him and just leave, not show up or whatever. And he would take them back. So, this particular day, Grossman didn't show up, so they called Liebman. So Liebman's on On The Corner, and Liebman ends up in Miles' band.

AAJ: That's the first time you played with Liebman?

BH: I think so. Yeah, I didn't know him. I was on a whole other scene. I wasn't on the New York scene, you know that scene: the Michael Brecker-Bob Mintzer-Bob Berg-Chick Corea-Keith Jarrett scene. I meet him and then Beirach, because they had a band which was basically Beirach and Liebman a lot, and Al [Foster]. Al had played with Miles. Somehow, something happened, we were on a gig together with Pat Metheny, that thing outside of Denver, a ski resort I can't think of the name right now. And they heard me play for the first time and they realized I would fit their program. They liked me; they knew me. But liking, that's a whole different story. They had a Japanese tour, at the last minute Al couldn't make it. Miles came up with something. So they called me. Al was busy with Miles, so they just decided to stick with me. And of course, that was right up my alley: Coltrane, Miles, and Ornette, and Albert Ayler, just contemporary everything, everything! That's it! Outside of Herbie, that's the happiest I've ever been musically. And Richie Beirach, like me, is an unsung hero.

AAJ: He lives in Germany?

BH: He does now. If you think harmonically, he's as advanced as Herbie, Chick, Keith, Paul Bley, McCoy, he's all of that. Solo piano, advanced harmonic harmony—Webern, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Stockhausen. He's got this whole thing and certainly Liebman is 12-toned, and Ornette and later-Coltrane. Nobody wants to touch Coltrane after A Love Supreme, and he's into Meditations suite! Here we go—that's right up my alley! If nothing else, they saw how happy they made me. And that lasted for twelve or thirteen years. We made five or six records.

AAJ: So when was the last time you guys got together?

BH: Fifteen years ago!

AAJ: Fifteen?!

BH: It's hard to believe it's been that much time.

AAJ: So, whose suggestion was it to get back together? [the group played a special reunion gig in September 2005 at Birdland in New York]

BH: They just released some new live stuff we did. Just released it this year, so we just decided to do it. Live stuff! Just sounds like a drum solo with accompaniment. But Liebman likes that kind of stuff. And plus I don't play like that anymore. You know what I mean? It's embarrassing...it sounds like [jokingly makes static/white noise sound as drum sounds]...Even with the band Quest ending fifteen years ago, of course I still ended up making four or five records with Liebman, four or five with Beirach; and the bassist [Ron] McClure, six or seven. In fact I was in the studio with McClure yesterday, so the band broke up for everybody but me! [laughs]... [and playing] with Saxophone Summit [with Liebman] certainly affords me, well it does what I want it to do. Now, there it is again: I get to use my level of Coltrane.

AAJ: It's always moving...You seem to always be developing, alone for the fact that you're playing with so many people, and also you have this interest in all these young guys. It must be interesting to go back and listen to yourself on recordings through time.

BH: You know it's never good enough. Maybe now and then I would enjoy what the rest of the band did. I'm pretty much self-taught, so all the little things that you end up learning, of course you get stuck with that. You're so pleased with learning this little thing that you stay with that and next thing you know you really look like you're even older. Like I remember I had a conversation the last gig with Saxophone Summit that Michael [Brecker] was on and you know Michael he's a quiet kind of guy, so he gives me this big compliment. I just say, "I'm sort of just trying to play like Baby Dodds. He said, "Man, I'm trying to say that you're one of the guys, like Al [Foster] and Jack [DeJohnette] and Tony [Williams] and now you want to talk about Baby Dodds, now?! He didn't say that, but that was the look on his face. But I had! I had just discovered this Baby Dodds thing. I said, "Oh man. WOW. That's how you... [laughs]. "

But it is important. It is important. Those are the kinds of things that cats like Al Foster and those guys knew all the time, Tony Williams, too. I didn't know that! It's always these things that I'm learning. I'm chasing the newer things and I'll hear a record every now and then and I'll say, "God, I was already playing that! I thought I was just trying to learn this now. So I must have stumbled on it by osmosis or something. I must have just learned it in the situation, in the moment—which explains that too, that it can be gotten like that. Everything isn't academic. I think you kind of get academic as you get older.

AAJ: That's a downside, being over-academic... People are relying on that rather than the osmosis and the feel because they're overly academic. It's the feel you lose.

BH: That's what I'm saying. That's exactly what I'm saying now. I know Nasheet [Waits]. He's still saying, "Mr. Hart I'm saying, "Come on, man! ...EJ Strickland, too.

AAJ: Are there any instrumentations, or contexts you prefer not to play in or with? You've accompanied Shirley Horn, and I heard you once with Judi Silvano. I don't know how many other vocalists you've played with?

BH: A lot. A lot. Because I was playing with Geri Allen...[on] this record we just did with this lady from California named Mary Stallings...that record just came out...We already played at the Blue Note with Geri and Wallace [Roney]. But Mary Stallings is the latest one. I was supposed to make Judi's record, but with my schedule, I made the rehearsal [laughs]! What other singers? Well, Shirley Horn. The first time I was ever on an airplane, the first time I met Buster Williams, was with the Betty Carter gig. Buster and I met on that gig. Even then she was getting these young kids because I couldn't have been more than 20. Betty Carter—Buster I met on that gig. And that's how I got in Herbie's band. Because Buster recommended me. Buster, I love him...

AAJ: So there's no context you'd ever not consider?

BH: No, no.

AAJ: That's another aspect is that you talk to a lot of musicians, and they're very particular. It's almost limiting in that they're not as open-minded with playing in all these different contexts, different places, different people. They know what they're good at, and they're comfortable doing that, and it's this sense of comfort....

BH: That's what I'm saying. I think that's an advantage.

AAJ: You think? I think it's an advantage what you do. You play in any context and people respect that.

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